Posted by: Frederik Balfour on October 16, 2009
In a report released to mark World Food Day on Oct. 16 by anti-poverty NGO ActionAid, China gets high marks for hunger alleviation while India is singled out for its deteriorating situation. China has reduced the number of people who go hungry by 58 million in the past 10 years while the number of undernourished people in India has increased by 30 million since the mid 1990s.
The report attributes China’s success in reducing the problem of undernourishment to land reforms that led to greater productivity. The helped China reduce undernourishment levels to 9% of the population. [It did not give a comparable figure for 10 years ago.] In absolute numbers however, China’s problem remains enormous. Some 117 million people go hungry every day, and in most cases, their level of deprivation is extreme. Also, the agricultural improvements have come with a cost. The rise in agricultural productivity has come about thanks to extremely intensive use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides that are the biggest source of water pollution in the country.
In contrast, India’s percentage of hungry was 21% which amounts to a staggering number of 240 million people. The increase in the number of hungry was due in part to the large number of rural people displaced by industrialization [for an in-depth discussion of land issues in India, check out this excellent piece in BusinessWeek magazine by Mehul Srivistava,] and poor infrastructure that prevented available food from being properly distributed. “Hunger exists not because there is not enough food in India, but because people cannot access it,” the report notes.
Much has been written about the contrast between India’s tattered infrastructure and China’s shiny new airports, modern highways and logistics facilities. For a discussion on the check out this blog on relative merits of the two countries. However the Sino-Indian rivalry usually focuses on each country’s economic potential and attractiveness as a foreign investment destination. What the ActionAid report does is remind us of the extraordinary human cost of underinvestment in agriculture and infrastructure to ensure it is distributed properly. When children go hungry—a staggering 47% of children under six in India suffer from malnourishment—they are unable to concentrate in school, making it more likely they will remain caught in the poverty trap of poor education and low income. And the country as a whole suffers from all that potential human capital which never gets realized. This also tends to worsen income distribution. For more on comparisons between rich and poor see this BusinessWeek slide show.